During a recent study trip to mainland Southeast Asia researching the local textile and ceramic traditions, twice I came across some 19th-century European ceramics in Bangkok. First at the Southeast Asian Ceramics Museum at Bangkok University where I had arranged to view some foreign trade ceramics found in Thailand. To my surprise the Museum holds four European earthenware dishes, all of which were found in Yala province in southern Thailand (Fig. 1). They include three dishes with sponge-printed or painted decorations (so-called spongeware) and one plate by Wedgwood & Co. Ltd. (a separate company to the more famous Josiah Wedgwood & Sons). The museum director Dr Pariwat Thammapreechakorn told me that there were many 18th and 19th-century European ceramics excavated in Thailand, mostly from the southern provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat.
This plate (Fig. 2) was manufactured by Wedgwood & Co. Ltd. in 1956 or after, despite its beauty my curiosity naturally turned to the two spongeware dishes with maker’s marks impressed or printed on the base.
The dish with a central stylised floral design and an impressed bell mark was made by the Glasgow-based pottery J. & M.P. Bell Co. Ltd (Fig. 3). I was truly delighted to see it, as I can finally be certain that Scottish trade ceramics did reach Bangkok, something that I had been speculating when previously writing a blog post on Scottish Ceramics in Singapore.
The other spongeware dish has a slightly different shape and the base is broader than the Bell’s dish (Fig. 4). The printed mark indicates that it was made by the Nimy-Lez-Mons pottery in Belgium, possibly during the period between 1890-1915, when the company began to export ceramics to Asia and before the business was badly disrupted by the First World War. Interestingly the pattern design is very similar to Décor 47 series by the Petrus Regout pottery in Maastricht (Fig. 5). Nimy pottery was later sold to the Maastricht pottery Société Céramique in 1921.
In the 1890s, Britain had the largest share of the carrying trade to Siam (now Thailand), with Germany coming second. Direct shipments between Bangkok and Europe was rare. Singapore and Hong Kong, both being British ports, had developed into major distribution centres for European trade goods in East Asia. Two British shipping lines frequented the ports between Bangkok-Singapore and Bangkok-Hong Kong. Steamers of the Ocean Line (Holt & Co.) ran a daily service between Bangkok and Singapore and each journey took four days. The distance between Bangkok and Hong Kong doubled the amount of time while the whole trade was almost monopolised by the Scottish Oriental line.
My second encounter of European ceramics was at Wat Arun or Temple of Dawn, a top landmark in Bangkok located on the west bank of Chao Phraya River (Fig. 6). The temple has four small towers surrounding a central tower which reaches a height of 81 meters.
The exteriors are adorned with floral mosaics formed by broken ceramics (Fig. 7), and on a rough estimate these are about 70% European and 30% Chinese.
Among those European ceramic fragments, about 90% are transfer-printed earthenware and 10% spongeware. Most of them are decorated with vegetal or geometric motifs, while figural motifs are scarce (Figs. 8 & 9).
I began to ponder why and since when, the Thai people used broken European ceramics to adorn one of the most impressive Buddhist temples in Bangkok. Wat Arun (locally known as Wat Chang) was built in the late 18th century, with further extension work continued between 1824 and 1851 during the reign of Rama III. If the mosaics were added during the building or extension work, the ceramic fragments could possibly date to the 19th century. However my query about their provenance remained unanswered, until a month later when I spotted this paragraph on Siam: a geographical summary, by a Mrs. Grindrod (1895:84-5):
“Crockery and glass. English and German goods of this class are imported, but the Siamese prefer the Chinese blue and white dishes, whose cheapness and suitability of shape and pattern recommend them to native taste. The historic Hunter [Robert Hunter], the pioneer of European trade in Siam, tried in the forties to make a fortune by selling cheap Staffordshire cups and saucers to the astonished Siamese, who professed the greatest interest in his wares, but utterly declined to purchase them. In despair, Hunter sold his stock cheap to the builders of Wat Chang, and the crockery, smashed to atoms, was used to form the floral mosaics which adorn the façades and prachadees of that wonderful temple.”
Mystery solved! Thank you Mrs. Grindrod!